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In the Mumbai local elections held recently, the Shiv Sena has promised to provide sanitary napkins for all slum-dwellers.
If I weren’t against the politics of xenophobia, I would give my vote to this party just for this promise. At least it recognises that there is an entity called the slum-dweller, that within this group there exists a sub-group called female, that within this sub-group the majority are menstruating girls and women who need access to hygiene.We all know how difficult life is in the five days of our periods. We have to make frequent trips to the toilet, keep changing and hygienically disposing off our sanitary napkins, and ensure that our clothes and body remain clean, all this while remaining secretive about the whole process. I once tried to do all this while on a trip to a village. It was nightmarish because it was impossible.
The primary difficulty was that there was no toilet in the house. Now, without a toilet with a closed door and flush mechanism, I don’t know how to perform. How does one remain clean and private? Where does all the sewage go? I came to the conclusion that sanitation and hygiene is on nobody’s agenda because most of the decision-makers are male who have absolutely no difficulty and face no embarrassment in going to the nearest open space and doing their business.
The issue of toilets for women is not one of aesthetics alone. Where there are no toilets, women do not move their bowels for days together, since going to open areas like abandoned railway tracks and so on is fraught with danger. One is liable to be teased, molested or worse during one of these visits. The desire for privacy means that the time for ‘going’ is at night, the most dangerous hour. And there’s no question of going alone. One has to form a group for security. The impact on health can be severe. Prolapsed uteruses are a common ailment amongst slum-dwellers.
I’m happy that there’s finally recognition of the needs of poor women. If we are to talk of income generation and empowerment, somewhere in the discussion we should also bring in the question of sanitation and personal hygiene, without which the woman is going to continue to feel threatened and weak.
*Photo credit: Peter Rivera
I'm an alumnus of Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and now a published author.
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